Searching For Angela Shelton is this: a woman named Angela Shelton (who seems very much in love with herself) wants to embark on a quest to, appropriately, meet and dissect all the other Angela Sheltons living in the U.S. as a way to represent and connect the stories of women. It's a premise that might otherwise be dismissed as a vanity project had Shelton not learned along the way that a good majority of her subjects have suffered under sexual abuse, particularly as children (even more disturbing, most of their abusers were never charged). Herself a victim of incest, Shelton decided to shift from her original idea and zero in on the serious (and often muffled) topic of the abuse of women, and how the painful and violent pasts of these Angela Sheltons have shaped their hopes for the future. Engrossing and extremely admirable, right? So how come we got only one Angela Shelton (over and over and OVER) for the price of so many others? Searching For Angela Shelton should be empowering; it is only in the sense that the director had the opportunity to conduct this project, and that she stumbled on so many remarkable "I survived..." examples, despite how briefly they're examined. Otherwise, it's done so selfishly (and awkwardly, thanks to its distractingly contrived set-ups and overall poor editing) that it's hard to give the woman at the center a whole lot of credit.
The road in Searching For Angela Shelton could be argued as a tool for uniting women from around the country, but it seemed ultimately useless as a narrative structure because it was depicted so literally. We as the audience are simply guided along on the director's route (and provided a hefty amount of clichĂ©d driving montages), but why? We already know that the filmmaker is on a road trip, as she introduces each new Angela Shelton by their name and the city they inhabit. It seems that the road footage is mostly used to illustrate, enhance or fabricate a mood that Director Angela really, really NEEDS us to feel, and the number of loaded, "emotional" images grows exhausting: among others, there's a trailer park, a tattered American flag, a close-up of the words "Father" and "Wrong" on a church message board, and grim city rain against the voice-over conversations with the clearly unstable "anonymous Angela." The visuals are plunked in as filler for the moments that have no obvious visual footage to boast. Worse, Director Angela's narcissistic habit of being in EVERY IMAGE immensely reduced the film's original potential. When not scanning over those brooding, black and white stills of her "talking on the phone", the camera simply couldn't get enough of our filmmaker crying, complaining or talking about herself in such a ridiculous, inflated manner that you can't help but wonder if she's kidding.
I would argue that Director Angela abused the camera, in fact. Not only did she open up a number of old wounds, but she leaves the audience completely confused as to how she dealt with each subject's stories aside from using them to bring it back to her. What happened to these other Angela Sheltons AFTER the camera was turned off and the crew was moved on? An assurance that she was leaving these women with at least a bit of information about where they could go to talk to someone or how they could help others in a similar situation would have been nice. While her attempts to turn the film into a portrait of women as a unified body so as to remedy the problem of abuse in America were promising, they seemed too often overshadowed byâ€¦her. Whether or not it was intentional, Director Angela edited the film in such a way that undermined the other womenâ€™s stories with her own blather (at one point in the film, the subjects are uncomfortably asking HER questions).
Personally, I would have focused more on the scattered Angela Sheltons and how their stories must be told, and less on how I "healed" from it (which, after we see Director Angela's meltdown, complete with...crayons, we're not so sure how she's doing). Alternative voices are the key to a documentary, not an over-dramatized personal account. And, I would absolutely, absolutely have a counselor along for the ride to provide actual resources. In the end, Searching For Angela Shelton offers very little solution, only discomfort; the simplification of a complex issue that deserves less of a filmmaker's quest for personal answers and more of a critical debate. With each pit stop, the strength of a new Angela Shelton should prove necessary, so it's a shame their stories are so simplified for the director's sake.